I arrived in Laos shortly after sunset with my boyfriend in tow. As the tuk tuk trundled into town I caught my first glimpse of the Mekong, a silver streak beneath blueish mountains, lined by flame-red Poinciana trees.
Our first stop was 3 Nagas, a boutique hotel spread across three colonial buildings. With original teak beams, gently creaking floorboards, shimmering mosquito nets, the rooms are the very essence of Indochine romance. Built in 1898 and transformed into an ice cream factory in the 1930s, it occupies a quiet corner of Luang Prabang’s Old Town. The only regular traffic is the daily parade of hundreds of bare-footed Buddhist monks who walk silently through town at sunrise, gathering alms, which is why the following morning I found myself at 5.30am staggering bleary-eyed onto my balcony.
Resplendent in turmeric robes, the monks padded gently past as locals knelt to dole out gifts of cooked rice.
Having thrown off French rule in 1953, Laos was plunged into civil war, the communist Pathet Lao emerging as victors in 1975. During the Vietnam War, over 2m tons of explosives were dropped on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country in history.
Yet the Laotians are among the most serene people I have encountered, perhaps thanks to the awesome natural beauty that surrounds them. From the karst mountains around Vang Vieng to the mysterious stone jars dotting the plains of Phonsavanh, every scene feels like fantasy.
There’s the Mekong river; the fastest moving thing in Laos, it runs the length of the country, a thread linking the countries various agrarian communities.
“Look, elephants!” I squealed somewhat needlessly given we had just arrived at the Elephant Village sanctuary.
Laos was once known as the Land of a Million Elephants but the species is now endangered. The Village is home to nine adult elephants and two babies, rescued from the logging industry. Now they spend their days in more leisurely fashion: mornings are dedicated to being washed, fed and fussed over by moony-eyed tourists while afternoons are spent at large in the jungle.
I fell head-over-heels for 30-year-old Mae San: transport, playmate and banana aficionado. After an incredible hour-long ride on her back we made for the river where I did my best to scrub her down while she did her best to soak me to the skin with spray from her trunk.
Come dinner time we continued the theme at L’Elephant, a French-Laotian restaurant. South East Asia still has a way to go when it comes to a decent wine list but the cellar here will satisfy most casual drinkers, while those craving a break from rice will appreciate the roast quail and the onion soup with gruyere.
For the best food in town, though, you needn’t look past the front door. 3 Nagas is famous for its dégustation menu which offers a pitch-perfect selection of local cuisine from rich pork with lemongrass to fresh, minty fish salad.
Sleepy Luang Prabang comes alive when the sun goes down. The colourful night market kicks off at sunset while all down the UNESCO-protected streets, wooden shutters and painted doors are thrown open, light and music from bars, boutiques, and restaurants flooding out into the sultry evening.
After a few nights in the centre of town, we escaped to Belmond’s La Residence Phou Vao, a beautiful 24-room hillside residence surrounded by lush gardens.
The view across the frangipani-scattered pool to the verdant mountains beyond is punctuated only by Mount Phou Si, a 100 metre high hill in the centre of Luang Prabang. On top sits Wat Chom Si, its night-time floodlights creating a golden, glowing halo around the summit.
To experience a genuine jungle paradise, head to the spectacular Kuang Si waterfalls, half an hour’s drive away.
The series of terraced pools, formed as fresh water cuts through limestone, is surrounded by dense forest, providing ideal conditions for a sheltered dip.
The best time to arrive is around 8am, before the backpackers turn up – we spent several hours wallowing in the turquoise waters, bothered only by the occasional gentle nip from curious fish.
To celebrate our last night in romantic Laos, I booked the Phou Vao’s intimate 500 candle dinner, served in a private pagoda in their beautiful gardens.
As we strolled down the candle-lit path, I heard the first rumblings of thunder. The storm was a long way off but its presence, flickering and growling throughout the seven-course meal, added an electric frisson to the evening.
Then the chef and the zither player, whose gentle melodies had accompanied our meal, packed up, leaving us alone among the hundreds of tealights surrounding the pagoda.
No sooner had we reached the safety of the hotel than the storm broke with all its might – a powerful finale to a spectacular trip.
NEED TO KNOW
Executive suite at 3 Nagas with a view of the monks’ alms ceremony costs £237 on a bed and breakfast basis when you book through Mr & Mrs Smith. Visit mrandmrssmith.com +61 3 8648 8871.
A suite with pool and mountain view at the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao costs £382 per night on a bed and breakfast basis when you book through Mr & Mrs Smith. Visit mrandmrssmith.com +61 3 8648 8871
An unforgettable one-day Mahout experience atElephant Village with elephant riding and bathing costs £99 per person. elephantvillage-laos.com. Vietnam Airlines flies to Luang Prabang via Hanoi three times a week.
For more information about travelling in Laos, visit tourismlaos.org